Kasora swallowed me. I had not thought it could, being a mere kilometer wide and seven long. But my city’s depths deceived. Every street bent up and down and in every possible direction. Though I had scolded my subordinates for fleeing from their doom, I now thought my chances adequate. Kasora held so many secrets. Could it not also accommodate a few hundred pale and panting men? Could they not vanish in its intricately familiar night?
I climbed the southwest Temple tower, the jade stairs chill against my sweating hands. I carried no torch, and asked the nearest ones to stay unlit as I progressed. So it came to pass that the High Historian of Kasora and all the world, embodiment of Profusionist wisdom, bearer of the light of truth and keeper of divine revelation, crawled blindly into hiding. Fatigued, I shook. I muttered and gasped with exertion and age. The stair spiraled up infinitely. I ached to my bones. The cold keening smell of Profusionist metal burned my lungs.
We kept many histories in that tower, thin pages of sentient Profusionist text. I did not think to ask why I had chosen this one tower in particular, but I suppose I returned to what I knew best. Several times I collapsed. I do believe I wept. I knew not where I went. In my haste I had twisted my right ankle. It soon began to throb. Descending from the wall I had missed some crucial stair. Now, ascending the tower, I lamented every one of these. I nearly lost all consciousness.
I cried out for the Faith, though, oh no, I did not use that title. I used his forsaken name, Jerem Cozak. I used the name of his birth and tutelage, the name he placed upon his written proofs. I used the name of my student. I called on the person in whom I had tried to instill some servitude.
I still do not know why. No one could possibly have heard. I gasped in cluttered dark. My breath kicked up thin dust, causing me to cough. Spasms wracked my body. I endured them. Such are the realities of age. Seeing all Thaeron’s people from cradle to grave, Historians do understand death. One can only accept eternity, after all, in the humble here and now.
At last becalmed, I looked up. My right hand, for all its reaching, grasped no higher stair. I lay with my arms across the polished floor of the tower’s highest room, its jade smooth to touch. My head still throbbed from coughing. I crawled to the solitary window.
The tower’s top stood three hundred meters above the base level of the city. I saw Kasora all at once. Perhaps that is why I went. An apocalypse must have its witness.
And below it seemed the world did end. The black veil, the ghastly dust, covered all the city streets. It lay unevenly, as a mist might, here only ankle-deep, there engulfing one entirely. But it did not stay within the streets. It crept through the cracks around the doors. It settled in through open windows. It billowed down the ramps. The walls themselves exhaled it.
Citizens ran out into the streets. Asleep, they had had no warning. They had not seen what slouching menace came. Now they ran into the streets. They collapsed when they touched the mist. They tumbled like sacks of sand, folded over even as they stood or ran. Few even used their arms to stop themselves. But then who has ever withstood the breath of the gods? They give us life. They can certainly draw it back.
Yet here an arm moved; there, a leg twitched. Someone moaned. A woman wept. A man rolled unto his stomach like a doll. These people did not gasp their last. Instead, they stirred in sudden slumber.
Of a sudden I was no longer in the tower waiting for my end. I was in the heart of the Temple court below, ten long years before. I had seen such sudden sleep before. I had seen my pupil Jerem Cozak close his eyes in just that instant way. He had gasped as tiny machines, bound in their jade fluid, teemed inside his mind.
Few voluntarily erase their first forty years of life. The faithful do, of course, those fanatics who make the pilgrimage to Kasora in order to have holy machines shot into their skulls. They call it sacrifice, and thus set off to begin their service to the world. But mostly, such desperate souls are criminals seeking amnesty, fleeing prosecution.
My dear Jerem Cozak had been very much the latter, very much because of my involvement.
But a sudden shifting of the black cloud brought me back to the present. Now I recognized them as the machines that they truly were, robots the size of grains of sand, seeded by our dear Profusionist gods a thousand years before, and woken now by ancient relics in cylindrical form. But to what end? With what intent did the gods of Thaeron bring them back to life? What change did they intend to waken in our minds?
The movements of the machine cloud revealed the outer Temple court, and the supine bodies of Kasora’s vaunted city guard. They lay pell-mell, like pens scattered across the floor of a cluttered cell. Their white and dying shrouds shone around them out into the night. They had gathered to defend their holy site.
Now their shields of energy lay fading in the dark. Scant protection those had been. No one stirred. No one wept or sighed. Some lay with their arms and legs twisted to strange angles. They did not sleep. Some had clearly been cut in two, with large shadowed gaps where their stomachs should have been. Even where the black dust thinned, the court of the Temple floor was no longer jade, but far, far darker. At night, I knew, blood turns to slick ochre.
Again the present disappeared from my awareness. Blood pooled around my pupil Jerem, deep in the Temple corridors, in another middle of another night. Before the machines went into his brain. Before he forsook his name and my teaching. Before he became the Faith, the representative of Thaeron’s common people, so very far from here.
“We are not alone,” he had come into my chamber to say. “The Profusion breathed life to many worlds. One of them still lives.” He claimed to have received a transmission. I would not hear him.
“You received a Profusionist recording,” I said, “one oblivious to us and all our centuries. Let it stay that way, even if you did not imagine it. This world is well. Who would want to change it?” I dismissed him. He did not go. There was, I told him after several argued hours, an alternative.
“The gods have given Thaeron much weaponry,” I said, grabbing a jade dagger from my table, “and only vague instruction. They left us to live like beasts.” His eyes followed me. I paced.
“I could not help you if I did agree. I’ll die in this office, head of my small order. My influence could not sustain you. I’m seventy, far too aged to advance. But you! Not yet forty years, your apprenticeship about to end. You think like no one else. You’ll ascend beyond me.”
I placed the ripe weight of the dagger in his hand. “Power is older than anyone. It’s greater and more ancient than this world. Only the High Historian can answer your question, can restore a message transmitted through a linking sphere, and he was not appointed to that chair. Few have been. You fascinate this Temple. I can speak on your behalf.”
With my own hand, I curled his fingers around the hilt. “The gods, Jerem Cozak, have left the rest for us. What could they desire more than our humility? Release your pretension. Allow your mind a transformation. You must ask: is your goal greater than yourself? What will you sacrifice for your belief?”
Stunned and blank of face, he left my chamber. I expected him to understand. Jerem’s mind was more acute than most. Though he had taken my dagger, I expected Historian logic and scholarly patience to hold their sway. I expected him to ascend to the highest Historian seat as a posthumous favor to me, perhaps twenty years in futurity. I expected him to wait.
Thus I came to be surprised, pulling him off of the High Historian’s body later on that evening. I had been speaking, after all, mostly to myself. But nescient impulsiveness had taken hold, and I went running to the source of many apprentice shouts, and to the place where Jerem lay entangled with a dead man, my dagger bloodied in his hand. There was a veritable cloud of witnesses.
A month later I stood before the august members of the Council of History and proposed my solution: we could have before us the very next Faith. The current one was near death, and our murderer coming to his Year of Choosing, his time of selecting a true vocation. To be sure, his election from a swarm of civil servants would require some manipulation, but why else had we Historians scattered Temples throughout the world if not to place Kasoran thoughts in other heads?
We would, of course, stand to benefit from this. Only commoners believe Letherium erases memories. Historians know its machines do no such thing. They only suppress recollection, and they certainly cannot affect one’s deepest personality. Jerem Cozak would always be Historian. We would always know who he was, and he would never guess.
Defying all my expectations, the inimitable Council of History, the most senior Historians of all the world, implemented my proposal. The newly anonymous Jerem Cozak was serving Thaeron’s unwashed multitude within the year, perhaps due to his predecessor’s unnaturally hasty demise. I of course would not know. My new office kept me busy.
Yes, for my trouble, for my vision, and doubtless for the reassuring feebleness of my advanced age, the Council of History lost no time electing me High Historian, the most divine representative of the gods.
Naturally, my opponents would claim, and have in fact claimed, that, seeing my life and career drawing swiftly toward their ends, I had manipulated a naïve and promising follower to open murder in order to orchestrate a belated grab for power, sacrificing him and his dissent along the way. Of course I expected Jerem to kill the man that night! I knew my student well! I must have planned the gambit all along!
Well, one of the things about being High Historian is that you need no interpretation but your own. Besides, the cynical will always be with us, and they were about to receive a certain justice.
Because now I understood: loyalty, I realized, just as I noticed something from the corner of my eye. Even as I had done a decade before, these gods had set about securing loyalty, and only killed the ones whose shrouds kept the cloud of machines from entering their minds. That was why the city guard lay dead below, and the city’s people lay asleep.
The jade wall of my refuge began to glow, illuminated by brilliant flame. I staggered to the stair just as darkness danced among the unseen fire. I looked down, and gasped.
Wreathed in its machine cloud, wings swept back but its arms of burning swords extended, the weaving strands of its body writhing as they burned, swinging one of the cylindrical relics like a censor in its right hand, one of the nine divine beings limped steadily up the stair. Behind it, all the jade turned black. It melted steps as it progressed.
The gods had done what gods cannot fail to do. They had found me out. They came to give their reckoning.